By Chelsea Doohan

Remember Gym Class?

If you are anything like me, you try not to.  My associations with gym were dread, awkwardness, insecurity, and discomfort.

I’m sure there were other kids who had these same feelings.  (Were you one of them?)  There were also kids who seemed to thrive in Gym Class, and I couldn’t relate.  They complained about having to go to Art and wanted to have Gym every day.  I felt the opposite!

The Irony

The irony is that while I dreaded Gym at school, at home I was eager to engage physically with whatever was around me.  At home, when presented with a physical challenge, I always wanted to try it.

I have fond memories of my dad teaching me and my sister to roller-skate (in the old days before roller blades).  We would sometimes go on the the bike path near our house, but we would also sometimes roll around on the hardwood floors inside the house. Thanks for putting up with this, Mom!

Dad also taught us to ride unicycles and juggle at a fairly young age.  Again, it was common for us to practice inside the house, and again, all I can say is that I have remarkable parents!

These aren’t sports exactly, but they certainly did provide me with physical education.  When we got a little older, it turned out that “real” sports weren’t beyond us either.

In high school, we got hooked on volleyball, playing on teams and spending off-season and after-school hours outside bumping, setting, and hitting back and forth, back and forth….

So it wasn’t a case of simple distaste for sports or physical ineptitude.  My aversion to sports was present in certain circumstances and not others.  It was situational.

In my juvenile brain, I  had assigned a certain value to Gym Class at school (“unpleasant”) and a very different value to physical activities pursued at home or in other contexts (“fun”).  Our brains do this – and not just as kids – often without us knowing it.

The Irony Continues

My Gym teachers probably never thought I would become a professional instructor of a physical discipline, but that is how things turned out.

After years of simply trying to forget the uncomfortable feelings I associated with P.E., I have recently become interested in what I can learn from them, and how it might be relevant to my students.

When I called up those uncomfortable Gym Class memories, now safely distant in time, and looked at them through the eyes of a yoga instructor, I noticed something about the state of my attention….

When I was suffering through Gym, I was hoping and praying the soccer ball wouldn’t roll in my direction or thinking about how terrible it would feel to be the one who finished last in the mile run.  I was entirely focused on things outside of myself and disconnected from things inside me.

When I lost that inner awareness, along with it I lost coordination, spatial awareness, strength, confidence, and everything else required to excel at physical activities.  No wonder it became unpleasant!

Enter Yoga

Perhaps this is why I so loved yoga when I first discovered it.  Not only did it offer exactly what I needed on a physical level, it also taught me skills that had been sorely missing: listening to my body, observing without judging, and using the information already inside me to make changes that improved rather than strained my well being. In short, yoga taught me to listen inside myself, and that was a gift.

But even with a regular yoga practice, it isn’t always easy to stay connected with one’s inner self.  There are lots of distractions and attention-grabbers in the world that can pull a person out of that connection.  Just like it was for me in Gym, anxiety, pride, and a host of other factors can obscure communication between inner and outer.

But if you have some awareness about this inner/outer tug and pull, you can have some say in it.

Find Your Own Examples

Here’s something to try: Identify your own examples of situations that pull your attention outside yourself and situations that help bring you back.

Situations that pull you out of yourself tend to be complex on some level, but they may seem simple enough on the surface, like Gym Class was for me.  Remember that it is different for everyone.  (For the kid standing next to me, Gym may have been exactly the thing that brought her attention into her body and made her feel centered.)

Maybe for you it’s loud parties, speaking in public, or confronting social conflict.  Your triggers might be people, places, things, or a combination of all of them.  If it helps make it more concrete, write a list.

Knowing what situations are the culprits lets you anticipate when you might be faced with them, which means you can start doing what helps much sooner.

Perhaps you’ve noticed it helps you to follow your breath, take a walk outside, or interact with a beloved pet.  It can be almost anything, so long as it works for you.

Make it a Practice.

It’s important to recognize that you already do the helpful things.  You do them intuitively.  The next step is to hone in on what is most effective and to do it with more consciousness and regularity.  In other words, to make it a practice.

Poetry is one of the things I have found to be wonderful for bringing me back to a more conscious and centered state.  I’ll leave you with a few lines from Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell), which you’ve probably heard if you come to my classes.  If these lines (or some others) resonate with you, you can write them on a card, carry it in your pocket, and read it at various points in your day, especially when you feel pulled away from your center.

The inner– what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

Poets say it best.  Namaste.